THE MAGAZINE

Teaming Up to Reduce Risk

By Matthew Harwood

Working a Case

As tips flow in, assessment teams must determine quickly which issues “are the ones we have to pursue versus the ones we don’t have to pursue,” says Cawood.

Records. The first step in the process is fact finding. Teams should set up a centralized clearinghouse of information, with a smaller, specially trained squad to gather data. These specialists should coordinate information sharing with team stakeholders to access whatever unprotected departmental information they have on the student, faculty member, or staff member being investigated.

The team should check all available criminal, court, and driving records from all jurisdictions where the subject has lived. Because higher education students, faculty, and staff come from across the country, their background records will cross multiple jurisdictions. To that end, campus police should liaise with, or have mutual-aid agreements with, law enforcement in other jurisdictions.

Another good practice, Cawood says, is to interview the subject’s friends and associates, especially neighbors from past addresses. “This can be an excellent resource for information on disturbances, police responses, and past boy or girlfriends,” he says.

As the team collects information, the data should be entered into a centralized database so that the members can create a historical record and track any changes in an individual’s behavior over time.

Subject interviews. If a subject of interest raises enough concern within the threat assessment group, the next step is a direct interview. Depending on the context, that interview may be conducted by someone on the assessment team or by a third party selected by the team.

At Iowa State University, most of these interviews are performed by plain-clothed police officers, says Deisinger. At ASU, Wilson says, a representative from the department where the threat originated conducts the interview. Interviews at the University of Maryland are conducted by the head of the office for student conduct most of the time, simply because it is the body that has the authority to require the student to appear before it, says Jonathan Kandell, assistant director of the University of Maryland’s Counseling Center and chair of the school’s Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment Resource Group, or BETA team.

Interviews serve several purposes. Most important, perhaps, interviews allow the assessor to look the subject in the eye. Public records and collateral information, while a guide, are historical and say nothing about the present. “Only the person, live and in front of you, knows what’s happening right now in their head,” says Cawood.

  “If I get a chance to sit down and talk to an individual,” he says, “who better to tell me about whether or not they are serious than the individual himself?”

The interview locale can also make a difference. At Iowa State University, Deisinger remembers a male student who threatened to kill several teachers and threatened area businesses. Deisinger and a city detective interviewed the subject at home where they observed a cache of weapons, read his writings, and discussed his grievances. They determined that he did pose a significant threat.

But because they were talking to this young man in a nonthreatening way and listening to his side of the story, Deisinger and the detective also gained his trust enough to de-escalate the situation. Without incident, Deisinger was able to confiscate the subject’s weapons, hospitalize him for psychiatric evaluation, and manage the situation into the future.

Deisinger made sure that the hospital notified him when the subject was released, allowing him to continually reassess and manage the situation. Deisinger continued to visit the subject at home, and he kept in contact with his potential targets to see whether they had been threatened again. In one instance, Deisinger even provided the subject transportation to and from one of his therapy appointments.

The interview also gives the subject a forum to air grievances. Sometimes, that’s enough. The subject vents and feels that someone is listening, that someone cares, and that he or she is not alone.

This leads to the final reason for interviews: choice points. Interviews can show a possible aggressor that there are alternatives to violence. By understanding where a subject is coming from, even if his perspective is delusional, a well-trained interviewer can move him away from violence, says Cawood.

Subject interviews, however, present one potential pitfall: Some threat assessment practitioners believe that an interview may confirm a paranoid subject’s irrational fear that the system is out to get him or her, making that person less reasonable and more aggressive.

The case manager must make that judgment call. Interviews should be considered as one of many options available when working on a case, says Martin.

Assessment and Response

After all possible information has been gathered, it is reviewed by the team to assess the level of risk and determine a course of action. 

There are times when an assessment team finds that the subject is simply enraged about being charged administratively with a minor violation of a university rule. The situation then escalates because a campus bureaucrat holds strong and says he or she can’t overlook the subject’s infraction. “Sometimes,” says Martin, “we have to say, ‘Break the rule. Make the exception…if that’s what it takes to defuse a volatile situation.’”

Of course, students also have to know that threats and violence are not the way to resolve such problems. So at the same time that the team may help to address the issue, it also has to address the student’s behavior.

Most threat assessments determine that a subject is not a risk. But the process is constructive even in those cases, because it serves as an early warning for possible future problems. A record is established, and if a later report on the same person is brought to the assessment team, its database will show that a pattern may be developing. The two events will have more significance than each would have if the dots were not connected.

“Threat assessment isn’t a snapshot, it’s an ongoing process,” says Wilson.

The team may also decide to proactively reassess a person of interest without waiting for another tip to come in. The team looks for signs of negative developments in situational factors, such as academic performance or social standing, which may become catalysts for violence. They seek out people who know the subject and interview them to see if any changes in behavior have been observed. Constant re-evaluation ensures that a potential threat won’t fall off the radar screen as it grows.

The objective of assessment teams is not only to protect others from potentially violent individuals but also to help those exhibiting violent behaviors from harming themselves and their futures. As Wilson says, “You’re looking for behaviors that you can address early to get people back on track to be successful.”

No one knows what may have happened if Cho had remained under close observation and received the mental health assistance that he needed before his descent into darkness at Virginia Tech. The result could have been the same, or maybe he could have gotten help that would have saved him and his victims. By formalizing behavioral threat assessment teams and agreeing on a common methodology for their tasks, colleges and universities may improve the odds that at-risk individuals on campus are identified and given the help they need before tragedy strikes.

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